Why Chamber Music?

For the folks who play it, it's the intimacy and democracy and unity and fun

Michelle Schumann
Michelle Schumann (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

Summer is their season to migrate, the time when they wing across the country, landing briefly in small, favorable habitats to make beautiful song with others of their kind.

I speak not of songbirds, of course, but of chamber musicians.

From May through September, chamber-music festivals bloom all across the land, from the Grand Canyon to the Great Lakes, from Marlboro, Vt., to Telluride, Colo., to New Bern, N.C., to Round Top, Texas. And when they do, musicians pack up their instruments and fly off to play at them. Case in point: This week, the Austin Chamber Music Festival opens for the 12th time and hosts not only a sterling collection of local chamber players but remarkable guest artists from around the globe, such as the Borromeo String Quartet, the Brazilian Guitar Quartet, the Cecilia String Quartet, and the Meridian Arts Ensemble.

So with chamber music in full flower, it seems an apt time to ask what it is that makes the music so enduring and why musicians are so devoted to it. Offering their takes are two artists with notable experience in the field and enthusiasm for it: Michelle Schumann, artistic director of the Austin Chamber Music Center and award-winning pianist who has performed at Tanglewood, the Banff festival of Music and Sound, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and Ames Asbell, founding member of the Tosca String Quartet and a nationally renowned violist who has accompanied David Byrne on two world tours. In addition to being colleagues, the two are old friends; Asbell was the first person that Schumann ever played with after moving to Austin. (The occasion was Asbell's first doctoral recital.) So they had no problem making lively conversation about the topic.

Austin Chronicle: What is it about chamber music that makes you want to play it, as opposed to being in an orchestra or a larger ensemble?

Michelle Schumann: First of all, every musician gets sort of starry-eyed when you say the words "chamber music." I found that with my friends and colleagues, and in a way it comes down to summertime. That was the time when we would get together and actually play, because during the year you'd be so busy. So somehow there's this idea of fun involved with it, that you play music all day long together in these small groups and you also eat together and play games together and do summer things together – swim and hang out and drink ...

AC: So chamber music is camp.

Schumann: It's camp! It's one of the most social things that we do as musicians, maybe even more than orchestra, because in orchestras you have your conductor who's like, "C'mon, stick to the program here." [In chamber music,] you have more flexibility.

Ames Asbell: At the same time, one of the most amazing things about it is that you can show up in a new environment – say, a festival – and be in a string quartet with three people you've never met before, and immediately you have a common experience: You're making music, you're creating art, without even knowing each other. That's pretty magical.

Schumann: It's the best way to meet people. It's much easier than a party. You go to a party, you wonder if someone is going to be approachable or not, but when you play music together, somehow you're communicating immediately, and you go to that level socially as well. Once you start playing music, you can communicate in a way that you could never do just with words.

Asbell: Absolutely. You form bonds with people you might not otherwise have a conversation with. But because you've shared something so personal, it becomes easier.

AC: Is it that the music starts from an egalitarian place? In a chamber group, you're all looking at one another on the same level, unlike an orchestra, where everyone is looking up at the conductor.

Asbell: It's the ultimate egalitarian experience, because everyone is necessary all the time. Everyone's complete focus is necessary all the time. Everyone coming into the experience understands and respects that. We all realize that we're bringing our best, and we're each bringing unique contributions to the group.

Schumann: That's one of the best things about it, too. Each person brings something unique, so you have access to the brains of the other people to make a product that you couldn't make on your own. Sometimes there are heated debates, but it's all in good fun.

AC: There's no authority figure to put the final stamp on an interpretation.

Asbell: It's a total democracy.

Schumann: People will assert their authority, but unless everyone is on board with their idea ...

Asbell: It's not going to fly.

Schumann: You need total buy-in, and it takes a lot of trust and checking the ego at the door. In an orchestra, if people bring their egos, they're like, "We're bringing our egos."

Asbell: That's one thing that's special about chamber-music experiences: Usually, there's not a diva. Egos tend to be much bigger in orchestras than in chamber music.

Schumann: In orchestras, it's where you sit. Wherever you sit dictates where you are in the hierarchy. You know it as a player, but also you know that everyone else knows it. I was talking to someone who said, "So-and-so is just a rank-and-file player with the so-and-so orchestra." And I thought, "Wow. Rank and file. What a thing to say." You could never be a "rank and file" chamber musician. It's got enough of the soloist's tendency that you have that importance, but then it has that idea of connection and communication that it's not all about you.

Asbell: Which leads to another thing that I find really appealing about chamber music: You have opportunities for leadership and opportunities to accompany at the same time. In an orchestra, violists are not going to have the melody almost ever. But in a quartet, you have those leadership opportunities. The chance to play every role is a really great thing.

Schumann: Ames played the Smetana String Quartet in E minor at the Victoria Bach Festival, and it starts with this huge viola solo, and it sounded amazing. Usually the viola isn't that. It gets moments, but it's not usually the centerpiece right from the get-go. It's surprising, and that's what chamber music does, too: It surprises people. People can really focus on who is the star at the time, and being able to focus on the changing roles is really engaging. That's why we talk about how chamber music pulls you in different ways than mass ensembles.

Asbell: You can hear it and see it. You can see those roles being passed around.

AC: You make it sound like a relay race.

Asbell: It is. The baton definitely gets passed.

Schumann: Sometimes dropped. [Laughter.]

Asbell: That experience in Victoria was a perfect example. I knew one of the violinists from Austin and had played with her. Then there were two people from Florida that I had never played in a small group with and one I had never met. And in 36 hours, we pretty much pulled this giant piece together. That's an incredible opportunity and so much fun.

AC: So what is key to establishing that trust and rapport in such a concentrated amount of time?

Ames Asbell
Ames Asbell (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

Schumann: It has a little bit to do with just ...

Asbell: Knowing you have to do it. It's gotta happen.

Schumann: Yeah. And not to get touchy-feely, but you have to go in with a clean heart. You have to check your ego at the door, you have to trust people, and you have to do your work so that you feel confident going into that situation. Then you just have to go for it. You take a leap. There's a leap of faith.

Asbell: This is something that separates musicians – especially chamber musicians – from people in other fields: The only goal is the end product. You might have an agenda, but if you do, it's just going to slow the group down. You have to have a vision of the final product and be constantly focused on that instead of getting derailed by little things along the way.

Schumann: And any negative attitude, whether you're not confident in what you're doing or you're overconfident, makes the product bad. So when you bring something bad into a group, even if you're so-called phenomenal, it'll suck. And you will look like you suck.

Asbell: And the audience will feel it. If someone goes into the group feeling superior and pushes an agenda, the audience is going to feel that.

Schumann: There's a rift in that group then.

AC: Is there a way to massage that when you get that vibe from someone who isn't a team player?

Schumann: There's a lot of pussyfooting around in rehearsals. You learn techniques. Like if you want something specific from someone, you never really ask that person. It's always, "If we could do this a little more. ... I wish we could sound a little more like this." There's a lot of "we." And there's real encouragement when it works. I've found being superenthusiastic works really well for me when I have an idea and it even works marginally. I'll get off my bench and cheer. I'll go nuts. I'll go completely freakin' ape-shit.

Asbell: In Tosca, we'll say, "I'm messing us up," taking the fall for anybody else who might be doing it with you.

AC: Orchestras and opera give people a sense of grandeur whereas chamber music tends more toward intimacy. Where did that enter into your interest in this kind of music?

Asbell: It's interesting because we come from such different backgrounds. Pianists are solo, solo, solo, and string players are in orchestras, these large groups where five or 10 people might be playing the same part you are. When I first got to chamber music, the charge I got out of it was, "Hey, I'm the only one playing this part."

Schumann: For me, because being a solo artist is so isolating in a way, to have my sound augmented by other instruments made me feel like I was playing the violin or I was playing the cello. To be a part of that sound world just expanded everything and piqued the imagination in a way – and piqued it in my solo playing, too, because I had all these textures in my head that I could bring to my own playing.

And a lot of it just has to do with being able to make choices for yourself. When you're a teenager or doing it for the first time, you don't have someone telling you that it has to be this way. You have a real independence, maybe your first musical independence.

It's a trust thing that your teachers have given you, too, that you're ready to be trustworthy on your own. 'Cause they're going to stick you onstage, and if you're by yourself and drop a beat here, drop a beat there, that's just your problem. But if you do that in your quartet or trio, it can all fall apart unless you have the maturity to deal with that in the moment.

AC: So you're taking care of others as well as taking care of yourself.

Asbell: Absolutely. The personal responsibility is huge. It's like being onstage with other actors: You have to know their lines in case someone drops something. We have to know each other's parts, so if something goes awry, we can figure out how to get the group back together.

The teamwork aspect has always been what attracted me to chamber music so much. Being part of a team where everybody really wants to be there and contribute 100 percent, that's the greatest feeling. A group of capable people, and you're all working together.

Schumann: I remember when I was young seeing some young artists do a Mendelssohn piano trio, and each one of them was a super hotshot, and it was some of the most exciting music-making I have heard. They were just kids, but they were on fire. You could tell they just loved listening to each other. And they were responding to each other. You can see it in their demeanor when musicians are paying attention to one another and when they're responding to something that was spontaneously put out. That's what I love about chamber music. You rehearse, you rehearse, you rehearse, but when you get to the concert, there's room for spontaneity, and if people can plug into that, it blossoms into this spontaneous magic. And you can't fabricate that outside of a performance.

Asbell: It's amazing that there's always something in reserve. You always feel like you bring everything to every rehearsal, but then there's always more when you get to the performance.

AC: Is some of that simply the presence of the audience?

Schumann: Sure. There's that energy in the room.

Asbell: Also, you're knowing this is the moment. This is what we worked so hard for. And many times, especially in festival situations, you may only have one time to perform a piece. So the investment is huge.

Schumann: Also, it's all about communication and what you're trying to communicate through the music. All of a sudden, you have who you're communicating to, so you get a different idea of what that communication is and what that is going to mean to someone else when that someone else is there. When they're not there, it's all hypothetical. "Hypothetically, this is what we're communicating." But if you're talking to your mirror, nothing is coming back. But if you have someone who's watching you and listening and paying attention, different things happen. Timing changes in a way.

Asbell: And your perception of time changes.

AC: But what is the response like? In theatre, audiences can be so vocal and reassuring.

Schumann: In jazz, too. In classical music, you can play a 45-minute piece and at the very end be like, "I wonder if they liked it." Then they clap, and you go, "Thank God."

Asbell: But you feel the energy in the room shift.

Schumann: Yeah. When you feel that you have them, there's a moment when you know that you can do anything. You can stretch things and manipulate them in this really delicious way.

AC: How does the space you play in relate to the appeal of chamber music?

Schumann: The more casual the space, the better. Then it feels like you're part of what it was meant to be. Then it's about the music and about the friendships and about the connections, and you can feel that everyone is hearing and feeling that music at the same time. I was thinking about opera and orchestra and chamber music in literary terms, and opera is like this big celebrity biography and maybe orchestra is your autobiography, but chamber music is like the diary. It's the secrets, and to be able to plug into that in a close setting is really great.

Asbell: Proximity is a big thing. When you go to a large hall to hear a large orchestra, there's a big separation. If you're not on the front row – and who can afford those seats? – you see ants on stage. You don't see facial expressions; you don't see body language. But when you go to a chamber-music performance, you're practically on top of the performers, especially performances in clubs or in homes. You can see every detail, how the musicians are communicating, and the interactions within the group – visual contact, body language – lead the listener through the piece. You can hear where the music is coming from, but you can also see where it's going. It's really fascinating, and you become part of that experience. It's different than any other classical-music experience. Anyone who hasn't experienced that owes it to themselves to check it out.

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chamber music, Michelle Schumann, Ames Asbell, Austin Chamber Music Center, Tosca String Quartet

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